Leaked FSB Letters Reveal How Russian Officials Have Discussed Nuclear War

Leaked emails from a whistleblower at Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) reveal that Russian officials have discussed the potential use of nuclear weapons by Vladimir Putin in his war with Ukraine.

The emails, which have been shared with Newsweek, were dated March 17, March 21, and April 12. They were leaked by the FSB agent, dubbed the Wind of Change, to Vladimir Osechkin, a Russian human rights activist who runs the anti-corruption website Gulagu.net.

Beginning March 4, the FSB source has written regular dispatches to Osechkin, revealing the anger and discontent inside the service over the war that began when Putin invaded neighboring Ukraine on February 24. The whistleblower's most recent letters, dated November, reveal a civil war among Putin's closest allies.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin partcipates in a meeting with mothers of Russia's servicemen participating in the military operation in Ukraine, ahead of Mother's Day at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow, on November 25, 2022. Leaked emails from a whistleblower at Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) reveal how Russian officials have discussed the potential use of nuclear weapons. MIKHAIL METZEL/SPUTNIK/AFP/Getty Images

Igor Sushko, the executive director of the Wind of Change Research Group, a Washington-based non-profit organization, has been translating the correspondence from Russian to English. He shared all the emails in full with Newsweek.

A previous letter from the source was analyzed by Christo Grozev, an expert on the FSB, on March 6. He said he had shown it "to two actual (current or former) FSB contacts" who had "no doubt it was written by a colleague."

A Nuclear Strike

The letters were published months before Putin threatened that Russia was prepared to use nuclear weapons to defend its "territorial integrity." U.S. President Joe Biden said on October 6 that the risk of a nuclear "Armageddon" is at its highest level since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when many feared a nuclear war might be imminent.

White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan said that Washington and Moscow have held talks aimed at toning down rhetoric around Russia's potential use of nuclear weapons and talk of nuclear strikes has been less noticeable in recent weeks.

In a March 17 email, written just weeks after the war began, the source said that although the conflict with neighboring Ukraine was "somewhere beyond logic and common sense," they hoped that "outright foolishness will not be committed"—referring to the use of nuclear weapons.

The Wind of Change expressed doubts that Putin would do so, as Russia "would also be on the receiving end."

"A massive nuclear strike: even if we assume that it is technically possible, that all the links of the chain follow all the orders, which I don't believe is the case anymore, it still doesn't make sense. Such a strike would hit everyone," they wrote.

Russia's 'Defeat'

In an email a few days later, the FSB source said that the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine would mean "Russia's defeat" in the eyes of both adversaries and neutral countries.

"Such a powerful argument for a local conflict would demonstrate military weakness, which not even military success could override," the Wind of Change wrote, adding that Putin could threaten their use to "possibly intimidate the West."

'Accomplish Nothing'

A nuclear strike by Putin in his war with Ukraine would "accomplish nothing," and could "provoke such consequences that there is no point in considering them," the Wind of Change said in an April 12 email.

The whistleblower also suggested that a chain of command within the Kremlin would block Putin should he ever attempt to order a nuclear strike.

"That is, if it's 'technically possible,' for which there is no certainty. More precisely, to begin with, this would require the consent of all those involved (to execute a nuclear strike), which appears to be complicated. Then it will require that the technical capabilities match the 'wants,' and everything is tricky here," they explained.

Russia would also have to launch in a way "that you don't get an equally entertaining missile hitting the point of origin. (A responding nuclear strike from the West)," and consider intervention from other nations over Russian territory, the Wind of Change said.

"And the missiles will still need to reach the targets, because 'non-uniform intercepts' of such missiles over our territory could be an unpleasant 'side effect"' that would override everything."

'No Strategy'

In the same email, the FSB agent criticized the Kremlin's lack of strategy in the war, pointing a finger at Putin for Russia's military setbacks in Ukraine at the time.

"The culmination of the Russian problem has now been created personally by Putin—already by the fact that he puts his political demands above any expediency: military, social, economic," they wrote.

"We don't have a strategy...As recently as two weeks ago, there was hope that the current crisis would force the country's top leadership to take a responsible step back, assess the situation, and look for real solutions to the current situation."

They added: "But instead we see the behavior of a player who has had a breakdown in the excitement and is trying to win back his lost bets at any cost. And there is no one to stop him, and his environment indulges in it (you should see how even our people grovel [in the FSB])."

Max Bergmann, the director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), previously told Newsweek that he believes Putin is now "desperate for some sort of way to try to turn this conflict around."

"There's a lot of frustration that you have, if you're Russian, this huge reserve of nuclear weapons, which is sort of now your claim to great power status. But they're kind of irrelevant—you can't really use them, all you can do is sort of threaten to use them," he said.

Bergmann assessed that if Ukraine continues to make major gains and approaches Crimea, "that's the scenario where you could perhaps see Russia get very serious about making nuclear threats."

The analyst said he believes Putin is more likely to resort to using nuclear weapons or threaten to do so should his partial mobilization of Russian reserves turn out to be ineffective in the war.

Newsweek reached out to Russia's foreign ministry for comment.

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